A Plant for the Bees

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener A few years ago, several of us Master Gardeners went on a field trip to visit Cure Nursery, a native plant nursery. The horticulturist there suggested we visit the Pollinator Garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro. Since the trip was in October, I checked their website to see what, if anything, would be blooming. I noticed Monarda punctata, a type of bee balm. I went back to other bloom times and this plant bloomed for most of the summer! Intrigued, I gave a short talk about it to the Southside Virginia Herb Society. One of the members bought 2 packets of seed and gave me one. Being propagation deficient, I gave the packet to my good friend Lona of Chandler Gardens who is very good at propagation. She gave me the starts a few weeks later. I was able to give every member their own plant plus one for my garden.
This bumblebee is very happy slurping up nectar from the native mountain mint. Allen Armitage in Herbaceous Perennial Plants says that “spotted beebalm has lovely yellow to cream whorled flowers bracts beneath the flowers range from pink to lavender. As I just wrote that, I thought hold your horses, that is not the way my plant looks. So did some sleuthing and thought it was probably mountain mint. I had an herb society meeting Saturday, so took a cutting they all confirmed that it was mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum. Its silvery leaves make it easy to fit in with other plants and maybe that is why Allan Armitage said the it has become popular with designers. It is best grown en masse. The leaves have a wonderfully minty smell and can be used to make tea. Since it is native, no need to fertilize or irrigate. But the best reason to plant it, is for pollinators. When I was taking pictures for this article, I must have noticed at least 10 different species of native bees in the multitude of bees on the plant. My husband and I were sitting on the porch having a beverage a few days ago. I asked him if he heard singing and he said that it was the bees singing. And indeed, it was. There were so many that they were making a lovely chorus. I have yet to see a honey bee on it. If you fear bees, please note that native bees are very docile. If you stepped on one with bare feet, yes it will sting you. Since they are solitary, except for bumble bees, there isn’t any other bee to fulfil their job. Survival of their species is inbred in native solitary bees. To our eyes, it is not a beautiful plant. But the fact that it is a bee magnet and blooms from May to frost makes it beautiful to my eyes. I have to laugh because it is planted next to my Black Eyed Susan, which I think is a garden thug in the sense that it will take over. Right now, the mountain mint is winning! Yes, it is a mint and in the Lamiaceae family but isn’t invasive in the way we normally associate with mints in the Mentha genus. It spreads by rhizomes but the roots are shallow to it is easy to control the size. Anything you dig up and be a pass- a-long plant or be used to fill in gaps in your garden or in areas where it is difficult to get plants to take hold. Because it has the minty smell, deer and bunnies don’t seem to care for it, always a plus. It is really worth the time to stop by the Chatham Mills “Pollinator Paradise” Garden in Pittsboro, NC and see the real Monarda punctata and all the other wonderful native plants. To see mountain mint, guess you’ll have to wait until the Master Gardener Plant Sale on May 6, 2023 or I might divide it during our perennial demo at the Halifax Farmers Market on August 12. It really is a plant worth having for native bees.